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America’s Open Wound
Published on Thursday, December 21, 2006 by the New York Times
America’s Open Wound
by Bob Herbert
 

It’s eerie. The air is still. There is no noise. Night is falling.

The five stone steps in front of me once led to a porch, or maybe directly to the front door of a house. There is no way to be sure. The house is completely gone. All that’s left are the five steps, one of which is painted with the address, 1630 Reynes St. The steps sit alone, like a piece of minimalist art, at the front of a small vacant lot full of weeds and rubble. Next door is a house that is completely capsized, fallen over on its side like a sunken ship.

Welcome to the Lower Ninth Ward. You won’t find much holiday spirit here. In every direction, as far as it is possible to see, is devastation.

On another lot, piled high with the rubble of a ruined house, I saw a middle-aged man standing in the front yard weeping. He wore a dirty white baseball cap and he was sobbing like a child. I walked toward him to ask a question but he waved me away.

Whatever you’ve heard about New Orleans, the reality is much worse. Think of it as a vast open wound, this once-great American city that is still largely in ruins, with many of its people still writhing in agony more than a year after the catastrophic flood that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Enormous stretches of the city, mile after mile after mile, have been abandoned. The former residents have doubled-up or tripled-up with relatives, or found shelter in the ubiquitous white trailers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or moved (in some cases permanently) to Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and beyond. Some have simply become homeless.

“This is a ghostly city, if you ask me,” said Sheila Etheridge, a waitress whose home was destroyed and whose three children are staying with relatives near Atlanta. “It gets real spooky when the sun goes down. They let me sleep in the back of the restaurant. But I’ll tell you the truth, we don’t have too many customers. You see what those neighborhoods are like. They’re empty. The people gone.”

The recovery in New Orleans has gone about as well as the war in Iraq.

In mid-September 2005, with parts of the city still submerged and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division on patrol, President Bush made a dramatic, flood-lit appearance in historic Jackson Square. In a nationally televised speech he promised not only to do all that he could to rebuild the Gulf Coast, but also to confront the terrible problem of deep and persistent poverty.

“That poverty,” said the president, “has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”

Now, more than a year later, the population of New Orleans is less than half what it was before the storm. The federal government has allocated billions for the city’s recovery but much of that money has been wasted or remains hopelessly tied up in the bureaucracy. Very little has gotten to the neediest victims, the people who were poor to begin with and then lost their homes and their livelihoods to the storm.

Many of the city’s hospitals and schools remain closed. Some will never reopen. There is very little public transportation. The politicians have come up with a stunning array of post-Katrina initiatives, but one grandiose recovery plan after another has faltered.

The terrible experience of the flood and its aftermath has left an imprint on the minds of most residents that’s as distinct as the water lines that stain so many of the city’s buildings. A cabdriver’s voice faltered as he told me about an obese woman who put pillows under her arms as the floodwaters were rising. She thought the pillows would help her float.

“She drowned,” the driver said.

Emotional and psychological problems are rampant, but there is a drastic shortage of mental health professionals to treat them. People are suffering from severe anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and other illnesses. Doctors told me that large numbers of mentally ill individuals have gone more than a year without taking their prescribed medication.

Many of the poor residents in the city feel that they’ve been abandoned by the government and the rest of America, and that the president broke his promise to help. “We’re in terrible trouble down here,” said a woman named Delores Goode, who stood outside the Superdome asking passers-by if they knew where she might find work as a baby sitter. “We were all over the television last year. Now we’re back to being nobody.”

Bob Herbert joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in 1993. His twice a week column comments on politics, urban affairs and social trends.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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